College Sports

Predicting the first College Football Playoff rankings: Does Clemson make the cut?

Alabama coach Nick Saban said he won’t be paying attention to tonight’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.

The College Football Playoff committee will release its first rankings at 7 p.m. on ESPN, meaning we’re one step closer to figuring out who will compete for a national championship at season’s end.

Well, sort of.

The thing about these initial rankings is that expectations have to be tempered, to a certain degree. Sure, it’s great to be included and be in control of your own destiny for the rest of the season, but normally, that isn’t how this thing plays out. Only five of the 12 teams who have played in the College Football Playoff, which replaced the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 2014, were in those initial rankings. The 2014 national champion Ohio State Buckeyes certainly weren’t – they debuted at No. 16 in that season’s first rankings.

But still, these rankings are a good way to gauge not only which teams have the inside track to the playoff, but also what the committee emphasizes for other teams hoping to sneak in. With that, here’s how tonight’s rankings should look:

1. Georgia

Not seeing Alabama top this list may come as a surprise to some, but Georgia has been as impressive this season as any team in college football. That starts with the most impressive win of the year, a 20-19 road win over No. 6 Notre Dame in Week 2. The committee has shown in years past that it favors strong wins over other factors, so that trip to South Bend is definitely working in Georgia’s favor.

Then you look at the rest of their schedule, and they’ve torn through everyone they’ve faced. They’re 20th in scoring offense, but then consider they’re averaging 42.4 points in their past five games, all against SEC teams. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both have more than 600 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, and it would be a shock for each to fall short of 1,000 yards on the ground. Factor in that they’re third in total defense, and it’s easy to see why the Bulldogs are undefeated.

They’ll play South Carolina this week and travel to Auburn the next, but there’s a reasonable chance they make it to the SEC championship game undefeated. If they can do that, even if they lose at that point, there’s still a good chance they make it into the playoff.

2. Alabama

Just because the Crimson Tide aren’t the top seed here doesn’t mean they aren’t a heck of a football team. It’s just that Georgia has beaten better quality teams to this point (especially since Alabama’s best win, Florida State, has completely fallen apart). Alabama, though, still has that opportunity to bolster its resume, with a home game against LSU this weekend and a trip to Auburn to finish the regular season.

Alabama’s defense has been its strength this season as it is every year, but it’s not like the offense has been bad, either. Alabama is averaging almost 300 rushing yards per game, and it also has the No. 12 scoring offense. The defense, of course, is tops in both scoring and total defense, and has allowed less than 10 points in three of its last four games.

The Crimson Tide, similarly to Georgia, have a good chance of making it to the SEC championship game undefeated. If it is undefeated Alabama and undefeated Georgia in that game, there’s still a chance that both schools make it in. They just can’t afford a loss before then.

3. Clemson

Yes, Clemson lost to lowly Syracuse, and no, that isn’t a good sign. But good wins have outweighed bad losses for the committee in years past, so you have to think the same goes for the Tigers this year.

If not for Georgia’s takedown of Notre Dame, Clemson could state it’s claim for having the most impressive wins of the year. They’ve already knocked off Auburn, destroyed Louisville and easily handled Virginia Tech in the first half of the season. Much of that can be attributed to the defense coach Dabo Swinney has put together, led by Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins on the line. Both look like future first-round NFL draft picks.

Clemson is sixth in scoring defense and seventh in total defense, but its offense is just as good, at least when quarterback Kelly Bryant is healthy. He left that Syracuse game early and the offense sputtered – with him at quarterback, Clemson will be tough to beat in its last few games, including this week at N.C. State. Not losing from here on out, plus an ACC championship win, and the Tigers should be into the playoff.

4. Notre Dame

This last spot is easily the least predictable. You could make reasonable arguments for Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma here instead of the Fighting Irish. But Notre Dame’s lone blemish this year, a one-point loss to Georgia, doesn’t look bad at all considering how dominant Georgia has looked all year. In fact, to almost have won that game speaks volumes about how talented Notre Dame is.

And any discussion of the Fighting Irish starts with Heisman candidate Josh Adams, who already has over 1,000 yards on the ground, including 202 last week against a formiddable N.C. State defense. Adams has been one of the toughest runners in the country this season, so it makes sense why Notre Dame is tied for the No. 11 scoring offense nationally.

In addition to beating N.C. State last week and Southern Cal the week before that, the Fighting Irish still have road games at undefeated Miami and Stanford to close out the season. Win both of those games, pray that Georgia stays undefeated as well, and it’s hard to argue against Notre Dame as the fourth and final playoff team. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a Georgia-Notre Dame rematch?

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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